Wednesday, June 02, 2010
*The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains* by Nicholas Carr
Over the past year or so, I’ve been alarmed by an appreciable decline in the number of books I have read and the ease with which I've read them. A part of that is to do with fixing and selling my house and having the fix it skills of a duck.
But too much of the time I’d sit in the right chair with a favourite drink and after a few pages I’d start to hear the siren song of a sink full of dishes or some chore that needed doing.
But most often it was the persistent allure of the internet and a host of favourite websites that suddenly needed checking; or no particular sites at all. Invariably, the evening would collapse into itself and I’d resolve to read more tomorrow.
On one of those indistinguishable nights I stumbled on an essay in the Atlantic Monthly by the American writer Nicholas Carr, who described my disquiet.
“My mind isn’t going-so far as I can tell-but it’s changing. I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s not the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, and start looking for something else to do. I feel like I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”
The essay, of which this was a part-- “Is Google making us stupid?” wasn’t an attack on Google, but rather a worrisome chronicle of Carr’s increasing inability to read as he once did.
In addition to scaring the hell out of me, I resolved to read Nicholas Carr’s book on the subject the day it arrived.
The lament at Words Worth and from all walks of literate life is that there are great heaps of books out there and no one seems to have time to read them.
It was thought that the Web would take a bit out of television, but media types tell us that TV use has remained fairly constant. It's reading that being pushed out and Carr rightly worries about the consequences, not from some preachy notion of reading being good for us, but specifically what the neurological consequences of reading on a medium that encourages distraction, with links to ever more places and where doing several things at once gets balled up with productivity.
The Shallows expands dramatically on the aforementioned essay by looking at the history of technology as it relates to reading; the rise of the internet giants that we are all familiar with today, and perhaps most importantly; Carr collects an impressive amount of data pertaining to neuroscience and the history of our relation to text. From here, he's gentle, but resolute as he points out the differences in comprehension around how we used to, and how many of us currently engage with it.
Without a hint of the polemic, Carr uses study after study, in multiple contexts to point out that people who read text the old fashioned way, understand it better and retain more than those who traipse through a text festooned with hyperlinks.
The current fetish from some publishers is to tart up young adult books with links, video; basically anything so long as it isn't mere words. Bronwyn brought to my attention just this morning a bookmark given to her primary school kids that advertises a website that advertises "an online collection of animated, talking picture books which teach young children the joys of reading in a format they'll love."
Time was, we had parents for that, but the salient point is that Carr's research around brain science puts the lie to all this. This is where our guy's thesis becomes money in the bank. Carr’s contention that our highly malleable brains (he makes good use of books like Norman Doidge’s The Brain that Changes Itself) are being compromised by near continuous exposure to information as presented by the Internet, as opposed to the ways of Carr’s youth. More than that we are falling victim to a use it or lose it scenario in which our “plastic, not elastic brains don’t snap back to their former state the way an elastic band does. They hold onto their changed state. And nothing says that the new state has to be a desirable one.”
The hyperlinks and short staccato-like bursts of information synonymous with Internet reading aren’t right or wrong in and of themselves, but they do appear to comprise a wholly different way of consuming text and Carr builds a persuasive argument that this new bag of tricks comes at a price.
I took much of the brain science research as an article of faith (footnotes are present) but the way research meshes with Carr’s experience as a writer and reader make the book exciting, timely and an urgent warning.Carr is evenhanded enough to recognize that those with interests to protect will posit that the Internet is a grand tool and that advances around movement of information outweigh any concerns, or that the empirical evidence Carr has gathered isn't sacrosanct. But I recognized myself far too easily in his warning, and I can take steps to put things right.
While the Web has been a godsend to writers, now able to do much general research in seconds, Nicholas Carr mightily illustrates the devil’s bargain we are making with our collective heads as readers. And Internet or not, distracted reading makes for bad writing.